Ververe 18, 1014
“Happy birthday, Lissie!” cried Betsy, swooping in and bringing her granddaughter to her hip. “Ye’re two whole years old terday! Can ye believe it?”
Lisette giggled. “Two!”
“Aye, two!” Betsy held up two fingers for her. “One–two!”
Lisette laughed and put her head on Betsy’s shoulder. And Meg? If there had been a back to her chair, she would have leaned into it. But there wasn’t, so she had to content herself with relaxing her shoulders and back.
Having this little party had been a good idea after all.
“Ye know,” Ella remarked, watching the children play, “when Marty turns two, I think I’m gonna have a party fer him too. This were a right good idea, Meg. How’d ye think it up?”
“Well …” Meg shrugged. “I jest noticed that Lisette’s birthday fell on a Sunday this year, so’s I thought — well, why not?”
“Why not” — maybe that wasn’t the right question. But Lisette had been a sick little girl a few times in the past year. She’d been beset by fevers, agues that made her shiver so hard her little teeth clattered together, even a case of whooping cough that made her struggle for each breath. There had been times — too many — that Meg had feared for her life. But her baby girl was a fighter, and she’d plowed her way through each illness to bounce back stronger than before. And there hadn’t been any sickness in the past month or so. Meg was hoping they had turned a corner.
That was probably why Pierre had gone along with the idea of this little party, a party they hadn’t had for any of their other children so far. Two felt like a milestone for Lisette. Two was an achievement.
Hopefully the road to three would be easier.
“We should do this sorta thing more often,” Ella remarked.
“Oh, ye’d think that,” Meg laughed.
“An’ what’s that supposed ter mean?” Ella asked, half-laughing herself. But only half.
“Aw, Ella, ye know I don’t mean no harm by it — jest that ye’re a more … party-lovin’ person than meself. Poor Pierre. He likes a good party too, but he’s stuck with two quiet, stay-at-home folks like Edmond and me,” Meg shrugged. “An’ ye know it’s good ter get the children tergether as much as we can. I want them all to grow up right close, ye know?”
“Well …” Ella glanced at the floor, where Marty and Felix were playing. “If that’s what ye’re wantin’, ye might not want ter take out the bear when me son’s around.”
Meg glanced at her nephew and laughed. That poor bear’s ear would never be quite the same again. It was hard to recover from a great deal of toddler slobber.
But Ella was surveying her son with a puzzled moue, so Meg felt she was being called upon to dispense some other-motherly wisdom. “But I wouldn’t worry about it, Ella — if ye’re worryin’, that is. Kids Marty’s age don’t really play tergether. Give it another six months or a year … even Lisette ain’t quite at the playin’-with-other-kids stage yet.” Indeed, that was the reason why the littlest ones — Michel, Lisette, Marty, even Felix — were inside while the bigger boys were outside playing with each other.
“I jest don’t understand it though,” Ella murmured. “Put a grown-up near ‘im — or Davy an’ Bert! — an’ he’ll play until he’s ready ter fall over from bein’ so tired. But other kids close ter him … he don’t seem interested.”
“But grown-ups and older kids know how ter play with a kid Marty’s age,” Meg pointed out.
Ella blinked at her. Then she asked, “… Meg? Ye sure about that?”
“Oh, come now! When’s the last time ye had ter tell off Davy or Bert fer bein’ too rough with him?”
“Too rough, no — but Bert tends ter lose patience with Marty. ‘Specially when he won’t share.” Ella glared at Marty as she said that, but he paid her no mind. After all, nobody was asking him to share right now.
“So what’s he do?” Meg asked.
“Stomps off in a huff an’ complains ter his ma, usually!” Ella chuckled, shaking her head.
“He ain’t hittin’. He ain’t pullin’ the toy out an’ makin’ Marty cry,” Meg pointed out. “Fer a four-an’-a-half year old, that ain’t half bad.”
Ella snorted, then looked again at Marty. “Ye know, Meg, the more an’ more ye talk … the more ye make me think that I’ve figured out the secret ter good motherin’.”
Meg blinked. She had? “Care ter share it with me?”
“Low expectations,” Ella replied, sighing and resting her little pointy chin on one hand.
Meg couldn’t help it. She laughed. Then she realized that Ella was being serious. “Ella! Ye can’t mean that!”
“Ye got a better idea?” Ella shrugged. “Every time I try ter — ye know, nudge Marty along jest a little bit, everybody swoops in an’ says I can’t be expectin’ a kid that little ter be doin’ whatever it is that I’m tryin’ ter help him do. So what else am I supposed ter be thinkin’?”
Meg tilted her head to one side and narrowed her eyes. Where was this coming from? Ella was so good with Marty — not that anyone would expect otherwise — so affectionate, always hugging and kissing him. But thinking back over the past few months, she’d always been a bit more adventurous with Marty than Meg had been with Basil. She’d tried to teach him to roll over, crawl, walk, all just a little bit too soon. Meg had thought at the time it was impatience of a benign sort — Ella knew her little boy was going to grow up to be someone amazingly special, and she couldn’t wait to help him get there.
But maybe …
A swish of skirts announced Betsy’s presence, followed by the drawing out of a stool as she sat herself down. “Well, girls! Have I missed anythin’?”
“Meg don’t like me secret ter motherhood any better than ye did, Mama Betsy,” Ella pouted, or pretended to pout.
“Ella!” Betsy gasped, then lightly whacked Ella on the arm. “Why d’ye keep goin’ an’ tellin’ people that? They’ll think –”
“That it’s funny?” Ella asked. “Me ma laughed.”
“Oh, she would,” Betsy sighed. “But ye don’t get where Kata’s gotten ter in this life without learnin’ how to laugh even when things aren’t supposed ter be that funny.”
Silence descended over the table. They were probably all thinking of everything Kata had gone through — losing her mother and having to raise her little sister Esme, the many years of being single, then marrying Jeremiah and moving to a foreign country, temporarily losing Jeremiah to … leafiness, losing Esme in childbirth, losing Jeremiah and having to raise the three kids all by herself. Or at least, that was what Meg thought they ought to have been thinking about.
Meg was thinking about her mother, about everything she had gone through. But while it had given Kata a certain humor … had it done the same for Betsy?
Ella changed the subject before Meg could get an answer. “Huh. Lisette’s playin’ with Felix.”
The three woman looked and found that it was so … sort of.
“Not really,” Meg murmured, low enough that she hoped the children wouldn’t hear. “Look, she’s playin’ with the blocks. Felix is drawin’.”
“But they’re right next ter each other …” Ella remarked, cocking her head to one side.
“But they ain’t playin’ with the same thing,” Betsy explained. “That’s how ye get ones that age ter ‘play’ tergether an’ get along. Give ’em both somethin’ different ter do — an’ pray that they don’t decide that they want the other’s thing.”
“An’ ye think Marty’s still too young fer that?” Ella asked, watching as Marty continued to squeeze the life out of that bear.
“Aye,” Betsy agreed. “Give him time, Ella. He’ll grow inter it in good time. An’ think o’ it this way — by the time he gets a little brother or sister–”
“Mama Betsy!” Ella winced. “Ye said ye wouldn’t bring that up!”
“Oh, honey!” Betsy slapped her hand over her mouth. “I’m so sorry! Ye know I didn’t mean nothin’ by it! It jest slipped out!”
Meg blinked. “Is there … some news on that front?”
Ella sighed. “No.” She shook her head. “An’ that’s the trouble. Marty’s a year an’ a half! I feel like I ought ter have a bun halfway baked by now!”
“Ella, ye know it don’t always work that way.” Betsy reached for her hand and squeezed. “Look at me! There’s only two years between Meg an’ Joyce, but there’s three between Joyce an’ Lukas, four between Davy an’ Bert, an’ twelve between Lukas an’ Davy!”
“But ye had some miscarriages an’ … stuff between,” Ella replied. Betsy didn’t wince, though Meg guessed she wanted to. Maybe it was just a tit-for-tat for the earlier slip. “Me? Me courses are more regular now than they were before I got pregnant with Marty!”
“Yer ma says it ain’t nothin’ ter worry about, though,” Betsy soothed. “An’ she would know if anyone would. Ye an’ Lukas are both so young. Chances are it ain’t anything wrong with neither o’ ye — probably jest bad timin’. That’s all. When the Lord thinks the time is right, ye’ll be havin’ a new baby in yer arms.”
When the Lord thinks the time is right. Meg looked away, trying not to let her thoughts show. Ella’s courses might be more regular than ever, but Meg hadn’t had one since Tyves. And she was starting to feel queasy in the mornings, although the nausea hadn’t been bad so far. It was still soon — too soon to mention anything to Pierre, or even her mother — but if those weren’t two very good signs that she would have a baby in her arms at the end of Imsdyn or beginning of Darid, Meg didn’t know what was.
And Meg had been … less than excited over the prospect. Michel was only ten months old — he’d been only eight months when Meg had gotten pregnant! He’d be seventeen months when the new baby came, just in the middle of the difficult stage between being a baby and being a child. Was Meg a bad mother for not looking forward to having to deal with that and a new baby at the same time?
But what was the use in complaining now? The deed was done. She thought that she and Pierre had been careful … but once or twice they must have not been as careful as they thought. Or only once — that was all it took, wasn’t it?
Now here was Ella, sighing over not having the beginnings of a baby soon enough. Maybe the Lord was trying to tell Meg something — to count her blessings, perhaps. After she had Pierre had made up over that rocky patch, she’d never had to worry about not having a baby soon after the last one was no longer quite a baby. She never had to watch the women look at her narrow waist and cluck over why it wasn’t increasing … although, now that Meg thought about it, she was twenty-six years old and had four children already. The gossiping housewives didn’t bother to look at the waists of women like Meg when there were younger women like Ella to cluck over.
“An’,” Ella was sighing — Meg realized that there must have been a whole part of the conversation that she had missed while she was woolgathering, “it don’t help that most nights, Lukas jest falls inter bed after he eats. He’s so tired, the poor boy.”
“Ella!” Meg gasped — and not just because she really, really didn’t want to think about what her little brother was doing in bed when he wasn’t collapsing into it exhausted. “Well, if Lukas is that tired at nights, there’s yer trouble! Goodness — ye can’t be expectin’ ter get a baby if ye’re — ye’re too tired ter do the deed.”
“I know,” Ella shook her head. “After all, bein’ too tired ter do the deed is one o’ the few reasons that the Lord will accept fer a woman not bein’ increasin’ …”
“Oh, stop,” Betsy shook her head. “Let’s not get started on that. Ye know that nobody’s judgin’ ye, Ella.”
“Really? The midwife’s daughter who’s spacin’ out her babies nice and far apart?” Ella’s shoulders slumped. “Ye know folks are sayin’ …”
“Folks’ll say what folks’ll say.” Betsy shook her head and clucked her tongue. “I say there’s too much when it comes ter babies an’ the makin’ o’ ’em that we don’t know about fer anyone ter judge.”
“Hear, hear,” Meg murmured, because it seemed like some kind of comment from her was being called for.
Betsy smiled at her, then she turned back to Ella. “An’ if any — any — anythin’ not good is goin’ on, well, that’s fer the Lord ter judge, not poor ol’ us. The Lord’s the only one what’s got all the facts, whether a couple is jest too tired ter do the deed, as ye put it, or whether they’re tryin’ but nothin’s happened ye, or if somethin’ not nice is goin’ on. An’ either way — well, fer people ter be speculatin’ about jest what other couples are doin’ in the dark is jest plain rude!”
Ella blinked. Meg’s jaw fell. Then — out of nowhere — Meg heard herself start to break into laughter.
Betsy blinked and looked to Meg. “What’s so funny?”
“Aw, Ma, did ye hear yerself?” Meg asked. “Come on! The monks an’ nuns say that — that preventin’ babies is jest shy o’ mortal sin! An’ what d’ye say? Fer us ter try ter figure out if other couples are mortally sinnin’ is rude!”
Betsy blinked. Then, blushing, she said, “Well–it is. The Lord says we ain’t ter judge even when — even when the facts are plain as the nose on yer face. An’ some things … we don’t have the facts, an’ tryin’ ter find them out …”
Meg glanced at Ella, her eyes begging, Help me out there! Ella looked from Meg to Betsy and back again.
And finally she came through in the way only Ella could. She laughed. “Oh, Mama Betsy! Meg is right! What other mortal sin would ye be callin’ tryin’ ter find out about jest plain rude?”
“Oh, ye two!” Betsy rolled her eyes and shook her head. “Not listenin’ ter a word I say … although …” She grinned slyly, then turned to Ella. “Sometimes, I think ter meself, busybodyin’ ought ter be considered a mortal sin, an’ maybe there’s a couple that … well … if the Lord axed me, I’d say that maybe they ain’t so bad as all that.”
“Oooh!!” Ella practically bounced up and down in her chair. “Tell me, tell me, Mama Betsy!”
“Ye can’t say somethin’ like that an’ not have us axin’ ye all about it,” Meg pointed out.
“Meg!” Betsy lightly tapped her arm. “Sayin’ stuff like that out loud is blasphemy!”
“Oh, bah!” Ella laughed. “Ye know what me ma once said ter me, Mama Betsy? When I was poutin’ an’ bein’ a right brat one day, but wasn’t actually sayin’ what was gettin’ me all riled up, me ma finally lost her temper an’ told me that it didn’t matter what wasn’t sayin’, the Lord can hear what I was thinkin’ as loud as if I was shoutin’ it from the rooftops. She wanted that ter be a reason fer me ter cheer up an’ stop draggin’ me own self down — but I told her that if the Lord knew it anyway, there weren’t no reason fer me ter not jest say it out loud! So I did!”
“Oh, Lord!” Betsy laughed and shook her head. “Why am I not surprised that’s how ye’d react ter that?”
“Probably ’cause ye know me, Mama Betsy. An’ me ma should’ve known me better!”
Betsy shook her head and rolled her eyes, then glanced at Meg as if to ask, Can ye believe this girl?
Meg could — and she had a hard time understanding just how it was that Ella was anything other than a breath of fresh air. Not so much for the family, perhaps, but for life in general. It was nice to meet someone who said what they meant and meant what they said for once.
“An’ ye ain’t gettin’ off easy, Mama Betsy,” Ella went on. “Ye brought it up. Come on now. What would ye take off the list?”
“Ye did bring it up, Ma,” Meg coaxed.
Betsy winced. “Oh, ye two will be leadin’ me down the primrose ter perdition if I ain’t careful.”
“Bah, ye can confess it next week if ye’re that worried. Come on, Mama Betsy! Tell us!” Ella leaned on Betsy’s shoulder and shot her a sad-puppy pout.
“Tell us, Ma. We’re practically dyin’ o’ curiosity here,” Meg coaxed.
Betsy looked between the two of them, then she sighed and closed her eyes. “I think … I think that maybe, maybe takin’ steps ter … prevent bringin’ a child inter this world that ye ain’t prepared ter take care o’ or love … that shouldn’t be a sin. Maybe …”
Betsy opened her eyes. “Maybe the opposite ought ter be the sin.”
Meg’s stomach was plummeting. How had her mother known? How had she guessed that Meg was … less than excited about this baby?
But — but not love the baby … that wasn’t how she felt, was it? Maybe Meg didn’t like the timing. Maybe she didn’t relish caring for Michel at a difficult stage at the same time as a newborn (which, if that wasn’t a difficult stage, Meg didn’t know what was). But she’d love the baby. Of course she would. And she and Pierre and Edmond would be able to take care of it. That was never the question. It just … wouldn’t be the most fun thing she had ever done.
No sooner had Meg rationalized that all to herself, though, did she realize that Betsy wasn’t talking about her. She wasn’t even thinking about her, or a woman in Meg’s position. Betsy’s face only took on that expression when she was talking or thinking about one person.
So that was why Meg swallowed, smoothed her skirt, and stood up. “Ye know — I’d better get the supper started.”
“Oh, come on, Meg!” Ella teased. “It’s a party! An’ we only got Betsy ter say one thing! We need ter keep pumpin’!”
“I think that one thing is plenty fer now,” Meg demurred. “An’ party or no party, I got a lot ter do. A woman’s work is never done.”
“Hear, hear,” Betsy replied. She patted Ella’s knee and stood. “Let’s help her.”
And so they stood. And so they helped. Because Meg was right: a woman’s work never was done.
She was right, too, in another thing that she didn’t dare to say out loud: there were some thoughts that only hard work could drive away. And luckily for all of them … this time, hard work worked.